Designed by Freepik

One possible source of effective action is thinking-in-the-world

In this article I start by saying why thinking-in-the-world can be more effective than thinking in our heads (because of the limitations of “working memory”). Then I say why it could be useful to think about our concerns (because our concerns, our skills and our opportunities come together in a unique way for each of us as individuals, as organisations and as communities). And finally I try to bring these two ideas together to propose that a particular kind of thinking-in-the-world is a source of effective action.

Humans have a limited capacity of “working memory”. Quite possibly some of us have a bit more that others. Various researchers have described working memory as typically having about “three slots” in it, but a precise number has been difficult to pin down.

In any case, to understand why it is helpful to do at least some of the thinking we need to do “with a pencil and paper” or on a chalk board or white board, or in a constructed system such a piece of computer software, or actually in conversations with others, we only need to know that working memory has at least some kind of limit to it.

This also shows why we can extend our capabilities beyond this limit by creating feedback loops in the world in front of us (and around us, and which in some sense and to some extent we in fact are). In this way we can extend the capabilities of our working memory by locating some of the memory resources we are relying on in places “outside of our heads”.

We do this by participating in activities such as writing words on a screen or making drawings or designing diagrams in a book. In this way we extend our working memory by using these things-in-the-world such as pen and paper, whiteboards, and computer software. In so doing we are expanding the level of insight we are able to achieve so that it can exceed the level of insight that would be obtainable by our limited mental capacities acting on their own. Instead the level of achievable insight can be extended to be correlated to capacities of the media we are interacting with.

For example if you are asked to multiply 129 by 543 you will probably find it quite hard to do “in your head”, but easier to work out on paper, and easier still with a pocket calculator.

By analogy, a similar increase in effectiveness and ease can be applied to other kinds of cognitive tasks, by doing our cognitive work “in the world”, instead of trying to do it “in our heads”. Everything from resolving problems at work or at home …

to organisational strategy …

and even to coping with global goals, such as the Millennium Development Goals, can benefit from being thought about in the world itself.

These thinking tasks can be moved out of our heads and into the world by means of anything from post-it notes stuck to flip charts, or magnetic swatches moved around on whiteboards, to software systems like Thortspace, or even something as rudimentary as a pencil and a piece of paper. To a certain extent, the in-the-world medium of choice may be a matter of taste and of the particular type of cognitive task that needs to be addressed.

Beyond cookie-cutter solutions

Designed by Freepik

Other people’s strategies and solutions, while they may make good blog posts, typically don’t provide the kind of accomplishment we ourselves are looking for.

Here is Jordan B Peterson’s take on what everyone should know: What are the most valuable things everyone should know?Professor Peterson also has a book coming out in January 2018 along similar lines: 12 Rules for Living — an antidote to chaos. Peterson does a good job of this. Solving a particular problem doesn’t solve our problem. Because there’s always another problem. So the real problem is to be able to solve all the possible problems… how do we do that?

Below are another couple of attempts by other authors. But these kind of rules for living only take us so far…

Why don’t these “straightforward answers” give us what we want or need? Why can’t I just read an article like this one, or the hundred similars, and subsequently have no more problems? Substantially the easy answers don’t provide the insight we need because:

  • Even though stock solutions may be helpful some of the time, stock solutions do not allow for the combination of problems I currently have. I don’t only have problem A, I have problem B and C as well, and the stock solution I am being offered for problem A doesn’t take into account that I have problem B and C as well.
  • These answers are not sufficiently tailored to the exact nuanced situations in which any of us happen to be currently embedded. When we try to apply solutions like these, we are not responding authentically to our own exact situation. Instead we are fitting a problem into a sort of rough-fit category of problem, and applying a standardised solution that is said to work with “problems of that kind”. Whereas in fact the situations in which we are embedded, the circumstances we find ourselves in right now, advantages and disadvantages of our own personalities and psychological dispositions, the people we have around us with whom we interact on a regular basis, all of these things provide infinitely varied and unique situations, each of which calls for an exact nuanced response that is a fit for that exact world of opportunity. My “problem A” is subtly different to your “problem A”.
  • Skillful action requires having the correct skills (which are substantially gained through practice, coaching, experimentation, and not fundamentally through understanding or hearing about or being told “the answer to my problem”) (see “A Phenomenology of Effective Problem Solving”) — there’s a substantial gap between understanding a proposed solution and being able to translate that solution into action. Even if you could solve a problem A by means of the “solution A” you are recommending, I don’t necessarily have the skillset to carry out your suggested “solution A”.
  • These easy answers are not embedded in the world as it appears to me with my problem — these might be good answers for you, but that doesn’t mean they are good answers for me, nor that they appear compelling answers for me. Although there is, as it were, only one world, the world as it seems to each of us can occur for us in radically different ways which call for correlatedly differing responses.

Consequently, in order to be effective in our own lives and communities, in our own precise and very exact situations and with our own precise and very exact problems, we need to be able to develop our own answers; answers that grow out of and are thereby precisely correlated with entirety of the situation with which I am dealing, and the problems that are calling for a solution.

How does thinking-in-the-world help us to grow our own answers?

Designed by Freepik

We can think about thinking in lots of different ways, but the perspective I am interested in is one that gives dependable access to effective action by virtue of it providing me with compelling actionable insights. For this purpose I’m proposing we think about thinking as:

  • associating / grouping / categorising
  • connecting / relating / cross-referencing
  • organising / putting in hierarchies
  • considering / reflecting
  • applying methodologies
  • researching / collecting
  • meta-thinking

My assertion is that applying these in-the-world processes to our circumstances and current thinking about our circumstances in a playful way gives rise naturally to actionable insights. The insights arise as a by-product of the in-the-world processes.

So when we consider the issues and projects and problems on which we are working we need an environment, outside of the constraints of our working memory, where we can associate, connect and organise our thinking. By doing this on paper or in a software environment, it is possible to see connections, associations and organising principles that the limitations of our three-slot working-memories are not by themselves capable of seeing.

Which in turn can give rise to compelling actionable insights that apply specifically to the exact world and circumstances in which I am operating. Which again, in turn, can give rise to effective authentic nuanced actions that precisely and specifically respond to the world around me that I am working to make a difference to.


Kulasegaram, Grierson & Norman review the research literature in respect of whether Deliberate Practice (DP) or inate ability (specifically Working Memory — WM) account better for expert competence.

RESULTS: Although all studies support extensive DP as a factor in explaining expertise, much research suggests individual cognitive differences, such as WM capacity, predict expert performance after controlling for DP. The extent to which this occurs may be influenced by the nature of the task under study and the cognitive processes used by experts. The importance of WM capacity is greater for tasks that are non-routine or functionally complex. Clinical reasoning displays evidence of this task-dependent importance of individual ability. CONCLUSIONS: No single factor is both necessary and sufficient in explaining expertise, and individual abilities such as WM can be important. These individual abilities are likely to contribute to expert performance in clinical settings. Medical education research and practice should identify the individual differences in novices and experts that are important to clinical performance.


After I had written this article, Steve Fiore from U.C.F. very kindly pointed me towards this list of academic references (this is not meant to imply any kind of endorsement for my article or my views):

External cognition: how do graphical representations work? Mike Scaife, Yvonne Rogers, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies

Thinking with external representations Kirsh, D. AI & Soc (2010) 25: 441. doi:10.1007/s00146–010–0272–8

External representation of argumentation in CSCL and the management of cognitive load J.M van Bruggen, P.A Kirschner, W Jochems

Distributed Cognition as a Theoretical Framework for Information Visualization Zhicheng Liu, Nancy Nersessian, John Stasko

Cognitive Science Approaches To Understanding Diagrammatic Representations Cheng, P.CH., Lowe, R.K. & Scaife, M. Artificial Intelligence Review (2001) 15: 79. doi:10.1023/A:1006641024593

… and also a link to this article about TruthSift
TruthSift: A Platform for Collective Rationality

The facebook discussion about this, is here:

Andrew is a Product Designer at Thortspace, the world’s first collaborative 3D mind mapping software. More stories here.